Review Summary: sex on tape!
It’s been a long, strange voyage for Trip Hop as a genre these past few years, as any dedicated fan of the genre will tell you. Chances are if you aren’t one of those dedicated fans you have no idea what I’m talking about, so: a little learning.
Trip Hop, or The Bristol Sound as it is sometimes called, is a genre of electronic music from-- surprise surprise-- Bristol, England. The focus of Trip Hop is a deep, smooth, psychedelic sound with a surprising mellow creepiness to it on a whole. Trip Hop’s never really caught on outside of England, but if you know a Trip Hop band this side of the puddle it’s either Massive Attack or Portishead: the seemingly-dead hipster vanguards of a genre on life support.
…That is, of course, before Third.
Third is Portishead’s, well, third album, and comes after a whopping eleven years of silence from both the band and the genre as a whole. Ladies and gentlemen, if there is one album that will make a Trip Hop fan out of you, it is this album. Every sound sample, note, and beat on the disk shimmers like a penny at the bottom of a dark pool: brilliant, sparse, and just dirty enough to be worth the reach. The songs all maintain a sensual, intimate atmosphere, and stay chilly, but soft and fuzzy enough to snuggle up with. Every hook is addictive, but not annoying thanks to the mild and inviting digital production.
Of course the cool, repetitive nature of the songs only serve to counter and highlight the focus of all Portishead’s music: the stunning voice of Beth Gibbons. Gibbons has always been the #1 reason to listen to Portishead’s music, and she simply smolders on every single track. Her voice is deep, soulful and beautifully wounded without approaching hammyness. Not one performance is phoned in, and every note wavers just long enough to feel like a romantic dagger through any listener’s heart. I feel bad just gushing on and on about an artist with no negative criticism (so call me fanboy now if you must), but this is just far and away the most striking and hypnotic female vocal performance I’ve heard in a while.
The song lengths are rather diverse for a band used to radio-length, perhaps to match the array of instruments they use. “Deep Water” meanders in under two minutes long and predominantly features a Ukelele(!), while “Machine Gun” uses a volley of Drum machine rolls to make its five minute length seem like thirty seconds. “Small” and “We Carry On” are the longest songs Portishead’s ever tried, but both are so filled with nostalgia and catchiness that they, too, feel rather brisk.
The whole album in fact feels like a quick dive into a lake by moonlight. These and other such romantic images are frequently conjured and played with by Gibbons’ voice and thick sampled string sections—basically the whole album sounds like the act of lovemaking. I have no doubt that Portishead themselves intended for this album to reside permanently next to the stereo systems of chain smoking smooth talkers. Doubters need only listen to “Hunter,” which makes up in tunefulness what it lacks in subtlety. In short this is the best kind of make-out album: the kind that evokes mood as well as passion and, rather than growing old with repeat listens, will likely reveal deeper intrigue. Third was worth the wait for fans, and is a must listen for anybody interested.